Rachmaninov: Symphony No. 3 (CD review)

Also, Symphonic Dances. Leonard Slatkin, Detroit Symphony Orchestra. Naxos 8.573051.

Russian pianist and composer Sergei Rachmaninov (1873-1943) completed his Symphony No. 3 in A minor, Op. 44 in 1936. It would be his last symphony. These days, we see it as something of a transition for the composer, being less overtly Romantic than his Symphony No. 2, Piano Concertos Nos. 2 and 3, or the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. The Third Symphony is also more concise than his previous works, pointing toward the greater modernity he would reluctantly adopt. Still, it is most definitely Russian in flavor, especially noticeable in the finale’s dance rhythms, and surely it is still Romantic in spirit. Leopold Stokowski conducted the Third Symphony’s premiere in 1936 with the Philadelphia Orchestra, and Stokowski’s much-later recording of it for EMI with the London Symphony is still the one to own. Nevertheless, this new rendering from Naxos with Leonard Slatkin and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra is no slouch.

The Third Symphony received an odd reception at first. Critics thought that it was still too Romantic in nature, that the composer had never gone beyond the Romantic period, beyond the Second Symphony or the Second and Third Piano Concertos. The public at large, on the other hand, found the Third too modern and not Romantic enough. They expected more of the lush, spacious tunes found in the aforementioned works. Poor Rachmaninov: He couldn’t win for losing. I suppose that battle continues to this day; most critics expect modern composers to produce new, imaginative, innovative material, and many in the public just want something they can whistle on their way home from the concert hall.

Another unusual feature about the Third Symphony is that Rachmaninov wrote it in only three movements. However, the second movement is really a combed Adagio and scherzo, so maybe that gives the work a traditional four-movement arrangement after all. The first-movement Allegro holds many surprises, the two-part Adagio is conservative but committed, and the third-movement Allegro vivace is exhilarating.

Maestro Slatkin catches most of the passion and drama of the first movement while sustaining its lyrical qualities at the same time. He does not linger on or draw out the movement as much as Stokowski did, preferring to step along at a fairly quick gait. Regardless, the movement never seems short of breath, and Slatkin does emphasize the big themes with a gracious hand, making them appear as broadly lyrical as ever.

In the second movement Adagio, Slatkin slows down appropriately and takes his time defining the music’s poetic features. When an allegro vivace section breaks out, Slatkin handles it with a zesty good humor before things settle back to the sweetness of the opening.

Then Slatkin concludes the symphony with all the dash and élan the finale requires. Some conductors allow the movement to sink into the sentimentality of a Hollywood epic, but Slatkin ends it in a straightforward blaze of glory, the veiled Dies irae theme sounding appropriately ominous and resplendently optimistic at the same time.

As a companion piece, the disc includes Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances, Op. 45, written in 1940 and among the composer’s last works. Slatkin pulls this quasi-symphony off pretty well, too, but unfortunately for him he has stiff competition from the justly celebrated Reference Recordings disc with Maestro Eiji Oue and the Minnesota Orchestra. That recording is so overwhelming colossal, it tends to dwarf everything that comes up against it. Be that as it may, Slatkin brings a nobility and dignity to the score that I often find lacking in other recordings, the conductor ending the piece on a triumphant note, this time with the Dies irae (again) hardly disguised. In all, we get fine, grand, bold, powerful, poetic results from Slatkin and his Detroit forces in both the Third Symphony and the Symphonic Dances.

The Detroit Symphony was one of the stars of early stereo in the late Fifties and early Sixties, thanks to their participation in a number of fine recordings on Mercury Living Presence. This time out, Naxos recorded the music at the Detroit Symphony’s home, Orchestra Hall, in 2011-2012, and the orchestra’s star still shines. Interestingly, though, while the new Naxos digital recording is good, it is not really an improvement over the old Mercurys, which hold up to this day as some of the finest recordings you can find.

Anyway, the Naxos sound has fitting power and strong impact, with a reasonably wide dynamic range. It’s also ultrasmooth, with a mild resonance providing a warm glow around the music. Midrange transparency suffers slightly (especially compared to those old Mercury discs), but it remains pleasing all the same. Bass extension is taut and deep; and even though highs can seem at times a tad soft, they show good extension when necessary. What’s more, the left-to-right stereo spread sounds impressive, with a decent localization of instruments and a modest orchestral depth.

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on the Big Jon and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa